The Teen Court Program: An effective Alternative to Traditional Sanctions?

The Teen Court Program

Teen courts are age-specific diversion programs that operate outside of but in conjunction with a state’s judicial system. Teen courts are not substitutes for juvenile courts, but rather an alternative used in specific instances. Most states that offer teen courts only divert low-level misdemeanor cases to them in the hope that first-time offenders will not become repeat visitors to the judicial system. This parallel system is often described as an opportunity to “interrupt” a youth’s involvement in the justice system and as “positive peer” pressure, and is considered a model of restorative justice. Across the country, over 100,000 court proceedings are conducted annually in about 45 states that offer teen court.

Who is eligible for teen court

  • Those who reside in one of the 45 states that offer teen courts (and oftentimes within specific geographic areas of those states);
  • Those within their state’s age criteria for teen court, often between 14 and 18;
  • Those with no prior juvenile criminal record;
  • Those who agree to plead guilty to a minor crime, misdemeanor, or delinquency charge, and
  • Those who are willing to participate in the process, complete their sentence, and honestly address the requirement to refrain from future criminal activity.

Teen courts do not tackle every infraction that youth commit but are limited to things like petty theft, vandalism, curfew violations and other crime trends among the teens.

Similar diversion courts operate across the country, skimming nonviolent first-time offenders from the general judicial and justice system when they (adults) meet certain guidelines. States offer parallel judicial processes for those with drug or alcohol dependence, a history of mental illness, and in some states, for military veterans with post traumatic stress disorder.

How teen courts work

Teen courts are administered by a cadre of volunteers and some paid staff administrators with the goal of teaching youthful offenders about the judicial system, involving them in their own rehabilitation, and perhaps improving self-esteem by showing them they can play a role in the justice system. Youth may be referred to teen court by police, schools, prosecutors, and juvenile court judges when identified as likely to benefit from the program.

Judicial system

Members of state bar associations may constitute a majority of the volunteers in teen courts, coaching students and administering a “teen bar exam” in some places. The American Bar Association publishes guidelines for jurisdictions interested in starting teen courts.

Upon entering teen court, the offender will find other teens playing most or all of the roles within the court, including sometimes as judge, jury, attorneys, and bailiff (about 50 percent of teen courts throughout the country use adult judges). Adult professionals provide some supervision and guidance for those role-playing as authorities. The teen offender is given a trial by his or her peers, heard by a jury of teens or the adult judge and a panel of teen peers. The goal of the process is both educational and judicial. In some states teens are charged a nominal fee for participating (as defendant).

Sentencing abides by strict guidelines, with offenders often required to write a letter of apology, attend a class that addresses their infraction or underlying issue 

(alcohol abuse, self esteem, etc), and serve a period of community service as well as returning as a juror for one or more future sessions of teen court. One of the goals of teen court, according to the American Bar Association, is to make the defendant understand that his or her actions have caused harm to an individual or a community.

Why agree to teen court?

The benefit of seeking to have a case heard in teen court rather than the juvenile justice system is that low-level misdemeanors are often wiped from a person’s permanent record (dismissed upon completion of a sentence or expunged by petition) rather than carried forward for future judicial proceedings to consider. A benefit to the juvenile justice system is that these courts help to reduce caseload, theoretically saving taxpayer money.

Juvenile and teen court records are not public records available to anyone other than those directly involved in the case. Juvenile records are sealed when the individual turns 18 but may play a part in future judicial proceedings, including making a determination than an individual is an habitual offender.

Do teen courts work?

The primary goal of teen courts is to deter a young person from pursuing a life of crime by offering him or her the opportunity to participate in his or her own fate. By educating the individual about the justice system it is hoped that he or she may choose a different role, such as clerk or attorney, rather than criminal defendant. However since many teen courts are tax exempt charitable organizations that operate without a significant amount of direct taxpayer funding, it’s challenging to determine if they’re effective.

Teen Court

Two organizations, Global Youth Justice, and the parent organization, the National Association of Youth Courts both claim significant benefits of the teen court process, particularly a low recidivism, or reoffense rate of under 10 percent. But an analysis of studies done by the Department of Justice showed that it’s difficult to compare these courts across the board due to varying models and reporting standards.